Artist Profile: David A. Trampier

In the latest in my irregular series of artist profiles, I have decided to highlight one of my favorite of the early D&D artists, David A. Trampier, often better known for the initials DAT that would appear on many of his gaming works. His is a name that only grognards are likely to be familiar with, but he was one of the formative artists in the early period of roleplaying games.

Despite the relatively brief period (if the late 70’s to 1988 is brief, mind you) in which he was involved in gaming art and comics, Trampier had a considerable impact on the feel of gaming, and remains one of the best beloved of the 1st edition-era gaming artists. Many fans of the early D&D material (myself included) feel that Tramp defined the early look of the game outright, before true painters like Elmore, Parkinson and Caldwell later came to dominate the scene. In any case, I adore his skillful black and white illustrations and his mastery of line weight, light and shadow. Many of his better works have a moodiness and ambiguity that was utterly missing from the works to follow. When I was first exposed to D&D art, I tended to prefer the works of Dave Sutherland III such as this iconic picture of a Paladin in Hell. It didn’t take long for Trampier to rise in my estimation though, and I now consider him the most skillful of his contemporaries in the gaming world.

He contributed to projects ranging from D&D (including the extremely iconic cover of the original 1978 Player’s Handbook which has been parodied and referenced so many times), Gamma World and had an ongoing and quite popular comic known as Wormy in the pages of Dragon Magazine until 1988. For reasons that have not been explained to the public, Trampier abruptly left Dragon and TSR in or about april of 1988, moved without providing a forwarding address and returned his TSR checks uncashed.

At this point, Tramp the artist effectively ceased to exist and hasn’t really been heard from since. His brother-in-law Tom Wham (another early TSR man) confirmed that he is alive and in illinois, and his only real appearance was in a student newspaper article in an illinois university that featured him as a taxi driver in the area and made no mention of his past as an artist, though some of his old gaming associates have stated that they recognized him from the photograph. A number of people tracked down his contact information after he turned up in that article and attempted contact, but he has politely rebuffed all contact from the gaming community and has not publically given a reason. While we have no right to pry into what his reasons might be, we can definitely look at and admire the art that this talented man and skillful storyteller left behind.

As I mentioned before, he was a master of implied yet somewhat ambiguous narrative. Much of his work clearly conveys the idea that there is a story in progress, but creates a number of questions about said story and refuses to actually answer them. More about that later.

So, on with the art.

The original Players HandbookIt’s probably best if I start with what is probably the single best known image that he created. It’s definitely not my favorite of his works, but it does make it pretty plain what sorts of activities adventurers in the game are going to be doing: exploring and mapping mysterious locations, killing the monsters that live or worship there, and looting anything valuable on site, whether or not it is nailed down. This image has been referenced lovingly, spoofed and invoked more times than probably any other piece of first edition art, even as recently as this very cool Exalted supplement cover from this year. I love the fact that this piece is matter-of-fact about it and makes no effort to make their activities look glamorous. These guys loot temples for a living, and they seem to make no pretense to any particular nobility. This piece also has a lot of mystery: is something horrible going to happen when the two thieves on the statue pry the huge gems out of the idol’s eyes? While my money has always been on “yes,” Trampier doesn’t actually tell us the answer.

Before we get to a couple of his other best-remembered images, let’s hit a few of his pieces from the Monster Manual:

trampier lizardmantrampier salamandertrampier firegianttrampier intellect devourer 08_tn

While not all of his MM pieces were winners (I wasn’t crazy about his wererats, his satyr or the infamous thought eater, for example), some of his pieces in that book were also utterly awesome. His lizardman piece above sold me on lizardfolk then and there, and I’ve adored them ever since – I was quite annoyed when my brother (the first DM I ever played with) wouldn’t let me play that guy as a PC. The salamander and that fire giant with the massive overbite are both terribly fearsome fellows that I would certainly never want to cross, and their facial expressions are quite menacing IMHO. Then of course we have the Intellect Devourer, a psionic menace every bit as creepy as the Thought Eater (whose name has an identical meaning, absurdly enough), but far, far scarier – possibly the scariest looking creature in the MM.

Next we have a pair of b/w illustrations (there is very little trampier work other than Wormy that is in full color) that helped establish, beyond the PH cover what AD&D first edition was all about at low to mid levels. See below:
trampier01trampier3

I love these two pieces. They both show the classic dungeon crawlers engaged in interaction with the nonviolent portions of their subterranean vocation. The thrill of discovery, the glint of avarice in the eyes of the adventurers opening the chest of glimmering booty and the mystery of what the Magic Mouth on the wall is saying (plus of course the hinted-at menace from the eyes down below). There’s no value judgment of what these men (and dwarves and halfling) are doing for good or ill. Both of these of course use what I’ll talk a bit about with regards to the next piece as well: implied narrative. They both clearly hint at a story without giving much in the way of the particulars. I love that.

So here next is one of the images and names that is likely burned into the memory of every 1st-edition DM: Emerikol the Chaotic.
trampier emirikol-the-chaotic

This is definitely a piece where a larger view is better. Now, this piece is a forceful and yet still ambiguous slice of narrative. While it seems likely that Emerikol is the mounted wizard blasting that unfortunate crossbowman as he gallops past, we have no idea why. Is he a heroic fellow trying to escape corrupt oppressors? Is he engaging in an assassination? A criminal fleeing justice? A mad wizard rampaging through the city? We don’t know. Whatever the reason, he’s riding through the city blasting people as civilians scatter and as more opponents pour out of doorways to challenge him (likely too late to catch him, it would seem). I always felt bad for that poor slob lying there burning in the foreground. It’s a very dynamic, well-composed and forceful image that leaves me really, really wanting to know what is going on and what is going to become of the depicted figures.

Lastly, I’ll share a relatively poor scan of one of my personal favorite Trampier pieces: the Ad&D DM’s Screen, which is another of the few colored Tramp pieces.
Trampier AD&D DM Screen

My apologies for the quality of this scan. I wasn’t able to find any decent copies of this image online, so I had to scan my battered and slightly faded old copy personally. That said, the reader is very much advised to click on the link and check out the higher resolution versions. Here is drama. Here is adventure. Here are bold adventurers setting forth to fight dangerous beasts and uncover fabulous treasures. Here we have a pitched battle as lizardmen (including one emulating the older TSR logo – he’s the guy with the halberd in the rear ranks of the lizardmen) assault a knight and men-at-arms that presumably stand to halt the monsters’ rampage across the countryside. We have a massive red dragon breathing flame as he swoops from the skies to bring destruction. Here we have a band of spirits rising from the grave to haunt the night, and over to the right we have a castle illuminated by a flash of lightning as a dragon flies through the benighted skies. Also, we have the fearsome idol from the cover of the PHB echoes in the lower left. I particularly like the resolute look on the face of the goateed fighter on the bottom right – here’s a D&D character of the period. He’s not a prettyboy like the guys that populate today’s gaming books, he’s a professional warrior rather than a model. Is he a hero or a ruthless mercenary? We don’t know, though he may at least be engaged in protecting the woman behind him… whether he’s doing this for altruistic reasons or not, we will never know. Here, in one collage-type image, we have all that D&D of the time was supposed to be. Wonder, fear, drama, the thrill of adventure… it’s got everything.

Now that looks like an epic game session. Count me in.

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16 Responses to “Artist Profile: David A. Trampier”

  1. CharlieAmra Says:

    I was a huge wormy fan. It was only years later when I found out he never finished the story (I bought the Dragon Compendium on CD partly to re-read Wormy). DAT, along with Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham were big influences on my art style.

    Thank you for this nice retrospective.

    • casewerk Says:

      Thank you so much! I felt it was worth sharing my love of this guy’s work, and it’s great to find that I’m not the only one.

  2. Chris Says:

    Good on you for recognizing the contributions DAT made to D&D back at the start of things. I remember thinking, like the high school kid I was back then, that Trampier seemed like a professional who’d wandered into TSR’s largely amateur, hobbyist artist pool. The quality of his black and white work really stood out in the original MM, and I’d always wished they’d given him that cover assignment too.

    • casewerk Says:

      He was totally head and shoulders above the rest, absolutely. As for the MM cover… yeah. As much as I liked DCS III as a wee nipper, I don’t think that I ever liked that cover.

  3. seaofstarsrpg Says:

    I remember meeting him way back at an early GenCon (1980) when he had just released the Titan boardgame and was wearer a nametag that identified him as ‘GOD’. Shame that he never continued Wormy and left the hobby as his art is very definining of those early years and has many found memories for me as well.

  4. MJ Harnish Says:

    Great stuff. I’m a big fan of DAT too and have been running weekly installments of Wormy to share the comics with all those out there who never got a chance to see Trampier’s work. As for the PHB, whether you love it or hate it, most would agree that it’s THE iconic image of 80’s RPGs.

    • casewerk Says:

      I’ll have to look over your archives of Wormy sometime. And yes, the PHB cover was most certainly the single most important image in fantasy roleplaying between 1978 and 1988.

  5. calvinboygenius Says:

    DAT ruled! Its too bad he stopped publishing. I think he drives(ed) a cab somewhere in Illinois. Not sure if he draws anymore. I always think it would be cool if he has a huge stash of work somewhere we don’t know about.

    • casewerk Says:

      Yeah, he totally dropped off the gaming art scene and was driving a cab for a while. He’s asked every gamer that tracked him down to lose his number. Nobody seems to know whether he draws anymore, but I’d like to think that he does. The guy’s pretty old by now, so he might be retired or whatever.

  6. hoss826 Says:

    Thanks for this nice piece. I remember reading the cab story ten years ago (or whenever it was that came out) and feeling like a bit of genius had been lost. I always hoped i would get to see work of his not in the fantasy theme. He had such enormous talent. If my memory is right, Wormy had a kind of ominous ending.

  7. Blacklunas Says:

    I love this art. This was art created by people who loved the game. It always felt that subsequent art in other editions were created by people commissioned to to create that art. It’s good…but it lacks the soul of an artist who’s also a gamer. You go Trampier! Old school rocks!

    • James Binnie Says:

      Absolutely agree! In first edition you could tell that all the art was made by people who actually played the game. Artists like Trampier were creating really fine pieces, but even those with less artistic ‘skill’ were still infusing the art with such passion and commitment that it all came alive and suited the game perfectly.

  8. Joel K Says:

    It may be of interest to note that the goateed fighter on the DM screen is thought by some to be a self-portrait of Mr. Trampier.

  9. Tim M Says:

    Came late to this convo, but DAT was my absolute favorite. The salamander and the lizardman featured were incredible and which fostered my love of all things lizard folk, but the Couatl and Remorhaz were tremedous, and the . In fact it was only Russ’, Erol Otis’ and Trampier’s pictures I loved, and carried the monster manual around with me everywhere as a kid. I wonder how the people at church viewed me, this child pouring over the MM and Deities and Demigods book.

    My love of his art made me feel disdain for other artists in the book as well. I picked apart the drawings of DCS especially as I felt his work was sloppy and lifeless… and compared to Trampier it was. Even Erol Otis with all of his skill couldn’t imbue the monsters with such depth, substance and personality as DAT.

    Notable drawings for me were the displacer beast, the ankheg, the lich and jubilex, but by far one of his best was the catoblepas, but not merely because of the art, but because of the atmosphere and presentation. This dirty, stupid, ill tempered, voracious and totally plausible monster scared the crap out of me.

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